I had major problems feeling connected to the last Culture novel I read, It felt like the author was holding things too close to his chest. Banks didn't seem to want to let us into his world very far, and so kept the door only open a crack. I am pleased to say that I felt no such sense of being on the outside in Inversions. This was much more welcoming, a more generous exploration of a world on the edge of being subtly interfered with.
This has been described as a non-Culture Culture book, which makes perfect sense. There are at least two representatives of Culture in this novel, but this is not from their perspective. It comes from those on the world Culture is trying to subtly bring into their sphere of influence, who are resistant or receptive to the ideas that are subtly being circulated.
These books always seem to have an undertone of uncertainty - Culture certainly means well, and the alternatives are horrific to contemplate. Still, if you're on the receiving end, what kind of interference would you think was acceptable? When is the greater good really the greater good, and who gets to decide?
These are not the blunt interferences of the last book Use of Weapons. These are two people in far-separated places, one trying to protect the reign of a new ruler with radical ideas, the other trying to steer a good king in even better directions.
There is also a strong strain of consideration of what can and cannot be forgiven in these books. Much may be, but some things...cannot. They linger and fester, are hidden or overt, enacted in brutal ways.
The woman, a doctor, has to struggle with gender biases even as she negotiates the feelings that are hers for others, and those of others for her. Both loving and homicidal. Of course, as Culture agents, presumably, they are not without defenses, but although her defenses appear, no one quite ever knows what happens. There is never official recognition of their origins - it's only through reading his other books in this universe that it becomes easy to recognize what is going on.
Banks is also playing with dovetailing stories, again, more successfully than in Use of Weapons. The two stories never directly intersect, although the larger political picture of the world incorporates both. More than that, there are suggestions that if these two ever met, they would be revealed to have known each other, but that remains ambiguity, and it's precisely the kind of ambiguity I like. It gives me room to think and speculate and participate in this fiction.
I am batting about 50/50 with Culture novels. About 50% of the time, I find them dense and thorny, meant to keep the reader at arm's length. Then there are others that don't mind inviting the reader in for a sit and a chat. It will come as no surprise that I greatly prefer those.
It's not a novel that idealizes old feudal society - we can clearly see why Culture might want to intervene, to save the lives of those with no access to power from those who will clearly and frequently grind them up in war or poverty. But at the same time, it's never quite comfortable with intervention, and that makes for interesting reading.